The humble popiah is one of our favourite local dishes. But it isn’t easy to find an awesome one even in the numerous kopitiams and hawker centres offering it. So, we were both excited and slightly sceptical when we heard of Po, a trendy Singaporean-style restaurant centred around popiah (the name alludes to the dish, as well as “popo”, mandarin for grandma), and other “heritage” dishes, given an elegant lift.
THE LOOK: The fortnight-old restaurant is housed within sexy new boutique outfit, The Warehouse Hotel, a refurbished building that used to be a, um, warehouse since 1895. It’s the first hotel venture by restaurateur and UOB scion, Wee Teng Wen, arguably best known for opening Tanjong Beach Club via his The Lo & Behold Group. Consistent with Teng’s love for turning storied buildings into tasteful F&B establishments, the former godown in Robertson Quay is one good-looker. It’s all sleek, understated chic urban lines in the dramatically high-ceiling hotel lobby. The PR rep describes it as “industrial, but softer and warmer”. An intriguing pulley light installation designed by Asylum hovers overhead, and a stylish bar littered with buttery designer leather chairs serves pre- or post-dinner cocktails. Unfortunately on this Friday evening, we are competing for the lone bartender’s attention with a group of cackling socialites, some inexplicably dressed in fancy glittery frocks and suits... to eat popiah? After a few sugary cocktails from the harassed barkeep, we are mercifully ushered by a wonderfully warm waiter/manager to the restaurant. The décor here is less stunning, but still classy and cosy. Think 1920s American cocktail bar-meets-colonial restaurant-in-the-tropics.
THE FOOD: It’s much touted that the menu is curated by mod Sin guru Willin Low, who serves as consultant chef here. We love Willin’s creative cooking. But we know not to expect too much when it comes to such arrangements, since he isn’t in this kitchen full-time. Po’s executive chef used to worked at Violet Oon’s National Kitchen. First up, the signature dish.
The cheapest is the Classic Popiah Platter at $28 (feeds two), but we foolishly splurge on the Fresh Flower Crab Platter ($58; feeds two), ’cos it comes with painstakingly hand-picked crab meat. Instead of a bowl heaving with crustacean, we get a tiny crab shell (left) the size of a popo’s palm, filled with its dainty flesh. The rest of the beautifully presented ingredients are also modestly portioned. Four flour skins in a bamboo basket stacked with lettuce and neat condiments including minced garlic, julienned omelette, crispy sole fish, peanuts, chilli. We get to work rolling up our own popiahs, pausing impatiently every now and then to read the instructions on our place mats. “At this price, you’d think they’d roll it up for you tableside,” grumbles our makan kaki as he clumsily bundles his overstuffed popiah so it resembles a deformed bolster. The potful of shredded turnip, apparently stewed for four hours, looks dry. This is somewhat mitigated after it’s given a good stir in the hae bee-kissed prawn and pork stock pooled beneath it. Quite enjoyable with the fresh, sweet crab, though the outsourced wheat wraps made by popiah stalwart Kway Guan Huat in Joo Chiat lean towards coarse and brittle. Overall, the dish is tasty enough, it’s just that we derive more pleasure from the silkier, heartier $2.50 per roll version at My Cosy Corner in Coronation Plaza. And we don’t even have to assemble it ourselves. The other dishes are more exciting. Like the Charcoal-Grilled Iberico Satay ($20). Three large sticks of slightly too fatty but succulent Spanish pork rubbed with lemongrass-infused spices. Scrumptious plunged in a chunky sauce of roasted peanuts and piquant pineapple puree.
The Carabinero Prawns & Kombu Mee ($32) is essentially Hokkien mee pimped up with posh carabinero prawns from Spain and a heart-stoppingly umami stock simmered with kelp, roasted prawn heads and sakura ebi. The moist noodles are gorgeous. Pity the two small prawns on it are over-grilled and dry, though the heads, the best part of a carabinero, ooze sweet oceanic cream.
We don’t care for the retro-cool Paper Spring Chicken ($49; feeds two), baked wrapped in paper a la Cantonese ji pow kai. While the bird’s texture is on point, its marinade is not: it’s too heavy on the sesame oil and sugar. And it’s stuffed with strangely unsticky glutinous rice with conpoy and lap cheong.
The Spicy Tamarind Barramundi ($29), on the other hand, is irresistible. Its rempah is like an amped up version of our Peranakan mum’s assam fish, and that's a compliment. Perfectly cooked, tender fish with lightly crisp skin carpeted in thick, tangy gravy, okra and dehydrated pineapples.
VERDICT: ***1/2 “Popo” probably wouldn’t approve of the unremarkable, pricey popiah here. But even the fussiest grandma would grudgingly embrace the other deliciously upgraded Singaporean classics, like the assam fish. We hear the kitchen is short-handed, so give it some time to work out its issues before dropping by. $$$
320 Havelock Rd, S169628, Tel: 6828-0007. Open daily 11.30am-2.30pm; dinner 6pm-10pm. Last orders at closing. www.po.com.sg.